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October 31, 2014
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Climate change widens gender inequality

Climate change is worsening gender inequalities in countries where noticeable gender gaps already exist, Lorena Aguilar, the global senior gender adviser of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said.

Aguilar, who is from Costa Rica, spoke on the topic to about 50 people April 29 in Textor 101.

She said for every one male death that occurs because of weather disasters such as droughts and hurricanes, four women die. The rates of these disasters are increasing.

She said depending on cultural norms in various countries, women are less able to care for themselves during extreme situations. For example, she said during droughts when food is scarce, a woman will eat less or go without food to ensure that the rest of the family eats.

Aguilar said some women are never taught how to swim. Also, some women may become trapped inside their houses because they cannot leave without their husbands’ escort.

Without education, Aguilar said, women don’t know what to do in certain situations. She shared the story of one woman in Honduras who was unprepared to protect herself and her children during a hurricane because of her lack of understanding of what to do.

“Her neighbor comes and tells her winds of 260 kilometers are coming, and her answer was, ‘How much is 260 kilometers?’” Aguilar said. “Never driven a car. Never been to school. She didn’t understand; she didn’t know if she had to go, if this was less, more, nothing.”

Aguilar said the woman began to walk away from her home after her neighbor encouraged her to leave. When the hurricane hit, she lost two of her three children and spent three days in a tree with her infant waiting to be rescued, after which the two were taken to a refugee camp.

According to the United Nations Refugee Center, women and girls face exacerbated risk of sexual violence during situations of displacement. Aguilar said the woman in Honduras was sexually assaulted after being taken to the refugee camp.

“You know what happens to single moms or women that are alone?” Aguilar said. “She was raped in the camp.”

Aguilar said the gender gap isn’t the only type of inequality widened by climate change. While more privileged areas of the world like the U.S. tend to put out more carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to the climate crisis, she said, they are less likely to be affected by climate change than undeveloped countries like the Republic of Maldives, which is at high risk from rising sea levels.

Marian Brown, special assistant for campus and community sustainability, said in an email it took two years to find a time for Aguilar to come to the campus and speak due to her busy schedule, but it was well worth the wait to get her here.

“I met Lorena at a Women and Sustainable Development conference at Cornell two years ago where she was a keynote speaker,” Brown said. “At that Cornell conference, I had my eyes opened to the differentiated impact on women of natural disasters and climate disruption.”

Brown said she thought the presentation would be especially useful to the environmental studies, Latin American studies and the women’s studies departments.

Freshman Emily Ross, an environmental studies major, said she came to the presentation after Aguilar spoke in her class earlier that day.

Ross said the presentation helped raise awareness about gender inequalities in other parts of the world that often aren’t known to those who live in the United States.

“The more you know, the more you can work to help fix it,” Ross said. “Everyone’s always like, ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ but … I think that knowing as much as you can about the topic in all perspectives just benefits in the long run.”